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Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris Illuminates City Moving from Tradition to Modernity
Ilse Bing. Danseusue-Cancan, Moulin Rouge, Paris, 1931. Gelatin silver print, 14 in. x 11 in. Zabriskie Gallery. © Ilse Bing Estate/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.

PROVIDENCE, RI.- The Frist Center for the Visual Arts will present Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris, opening Sept. 10, 2009, in the Upper-Level Galleries. The show, which offers a unique perspective on Surrealism by examining the intersection of documentary photography, manipulated photography and film, will be on exhibition through Jan. 3, 2010, when it will travel to the International Center of Photography in New York followed by the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga.

Guest Curator Therese Lichtenstein, Ph.D., New York-based art historian and photography scholar, has organized the exhibition, working with Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez.

The exhibition of more than 150 works, which features a preponderance of photographs but also includes films, books and period ephemera, explores the city of Paris as the literal and metaphoric base of Surrealism in the wake of the World War I. It was believed by the Surrealists that unconscious dreams, chance encounters and actions and automatism freed “pure thought,” from all constraints imposed by conscious thought, reason or morals.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Frist Center will partner with Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre and Vanderbilt University’s International Lens and the school’s French and film departments to present a Surrealism film series which will include the classic Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí and several other rarely screened period films.

Paris was a hotbed of creative activity at the dawn of the 20th century, attracting artists and writers to its vibrant and wildly fertile art scene. Numerous galleries flourished during this period, fueling the immigration of many of the world’s most talented artists. During the 1920s and 1930s, a number of photographers associated with Surrealism, including Man Ray, Brassaï, André Kertész, Ilse Bing and Germaine Krull, turned their lenses on the city of Paris with its dance halls, cafés and characters. These seemingly ordinary people and places not only had social histories but also became psychologically charged “found objects.” In exploring the city’s commonplace as well as its monuments, these photographers used unusual viewpoints, manipulative lighting techniques and innovative technical processes to expose and examine “the marvelous” in the everyday.

As Dr. Lichtenstein writes, “The images in Twilight Visions form a collection of views of various urban spaces, filled with cultural artifacts. The viewer is invited to slowly contemplate the city—its architecture, its monuments, its public spaces and its denizens— as an ephemeral ruin, at once both of the past and the present.”

Twilight Visions comprises five sections: images of the city at night and in the day, the transformation of well-known public monuments, the influence of Eugène Atget on the Surrealists; Parisian nightlife after hours and surreal figures.

The first section, Marvelous Encounters, includes photographs of city streets, shop windows, ordinary people and found objects that invite viewers to discover “the marvelous” in common objects and familiar places. Many of the works in this section look both familiar and strange, as subjects were photographed from unexpected angles, using dim lighting, soft focus and abstracted views to create dreamlike images. Among the works in this section are photographs by Brassaï, Man Ray, Ilse Bing, André Kertész, Germaine Krull, Dora Maar and Joseph Breitenbach.

The second section of the exhibition, entitled Photography’s Transformation of the Monument, looks at the monuments of Paris, particularly the Eiffel Tower, to examine the ways they shape connections to past and future. Included in this section are works by André Kertész, Ilse Bing, Germaine Krull and Man Ray. The Eiffel Tower, constructed from 1887–1889, was designed to serve as the entry to the Paris World’s Fair commemorating the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution. The skeletal iron structure also was designed to be a radio transmitter and a beacon for commercial advertisements in the form of illuminated signs. In 1931 Man Ray created a series of photographs that were reproduced in a portfolio by the Paris Electric Company for an advertising booklet called Èlectricité, which was used to promote personal use of electricity. That same year, he photographed the tower at night and used the image as the basis for La Ville (The City, 1931), a multiple-exposure print and one of the images used in Èlectricité. The Eiffel Tower, built as a utilitarian homage to the past, is transformed. The magic of electricity makes the tower visible at night, but in so doing, renders it unstable and non-architectural. Ray’s photograph turns the magnificent Eiffel Tower into indecipherable electrified text. In addition to Man Ray’s work, there are photographs by Ilse Bing, Georges Hugnet, André Kertész, Germaine Krull, Raoul Ubac and various postcards of the city that interrupt traditional heroic views of the monument.

Section three, entitled Looking at Atget, examines the powerful work of Eugène Atget, a photographer who was “discovered” in the 1920s by Man Ray. Following a stint as a sailor, a brief career as an actor and an attempt at becoming a painter, he turned to photography. Working quietly and modestly, Atget documented the loss of “old” Parisian culture after the turn of the 20th century. But in so doing, his “poetry of the everyday” also became a personal expression of nostalgia for the world that was disappearing before his lens. His work was straightforward yet magical. Works include Pont Neuf (1902–1903), The Wine Seller), 15 Rue Boyer (ca. 1910) and Boulevard de Strasbourg (1926).

Section four, Portraits After Hours, explores the Bohemian avant-garde culture of Paris. In the 1920s and 1930s, the cafés and cabarets of Montparnasse and Montmartre were a part of the transition to modernity taking place in the city. The antibourgeois, often seedy places that were the comfortable haunts of Parisian artists and intellectuals were becoming tourist destinations… fetishized places of fantasy and desire. As these locales metamorphosed into tourist sites where “regular” folk could rub elbows with Parisian characters, increasingly, these locales became stage sets where the “actors” relived the past for the cameras of the tourists. Ilse Bing’s photographs of Cancan dancers at the famed Moulin-Rouge capture the color, flourish, nostalgia and exhilaration of the dance. Photographers represented in section four include: James Abbe, Ilse Bing, Brassaï and Man Ray.

Mutable Mirrors, the fifth section of the exhibition, investigates the subject of shifting identities that was a part of the Surrealists’ desire to alter consciousness and transform concepts of personal, social and group identity. Issues of gender and sexuality and the roles of masquerade and play are examined in the works of Lee Miller, Nusch Eluard, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Raoul Ubac, Hans Bellmer, Georges Hugnet, André Kertész, Man Ray and Brassaï who experimented with techniques of doubling, distorting, multiplying and fragmenting their images. Included in this section are André Kertesz’s Distortions (1933) a series of photographs of nude women reflected in distorting mirrors that transform them into dreamlike creatures. The series was commissioned by the editor of the Parisian humor magazine, Le Sourire (The Smile).

Frist Center for the Visual Arts | Telfair Museum of Art | Savannah | Luis Buñuel | Salvador Dalí | Man Ray | Brassaï | André Kertész | Ilse Bing | Germaine Krull |

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